The men who looked after us

A true story.

So it’s the summer of ’79 and a man called Jani is buying nine year old me an ice-cream. At the time I had no idea what Jani was. Or where his motivation lay. Nor was I the only one he was buying an ice-cream for. There were half a dozen of us in total. I wasn’t the youngest, or the eldest. All sweltering in the back of a tired old dark blue Ford Transit. Deep in the suburbs of Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia. All of us devouring our ice cream greedily.

I can still taste it. Czech ice-cream had an odd, manufactured, salty taste, far removed from the rich creamy taste of western ice cream that I’m used to now. But back then I loved the taste of it. We all loved the taste of it.

Just as we all loved Jani.

In 1979 Czechoslovakia was a country under the control of the Soviet Union and this was the height of the cold war. It would be another ten years before Gorbachev and Glasnost swept through the Eastern Bloc.

We were posted to Prague in 1977, living in British embassy quarters on the outskirts of town in the suburb of Podoli. As the son of a diplomat, school was an international affair run by the Americans.

Children were dropped off at Malá Strana, the old town square in the morning and herded onto coaches to take them to the school on the other side of Prague. Then every afternoon, a cavalcade of cars and mini buses would line up outside the school premises to safely return all the diplomatic brats like me to their respective homes.

Our minibus, the dark blue Ford Transit, had seen better days, but probably not under the communists. Perhaps it had once been the pride and joy of the embassy, where Jani worked. On the days when his role allowed him to, he was the designated driver of our diplomatic brat pack.

The journey from school to our homes in the suburbs was always long and tedious. And frequently hot. But, somehow, miraculously, our mini bus never let us down. There was no radio, or music to keep us entertained. This was pre Sony Walkman times, let alone iPods. Our entertainment was Jani. He would regale us with jokes in pidgin English, ask us all about our day at school and what our parents were up to that evening, or at the weekend. On very hot days, he would treat us all to an ice-cream. A drive with Jani was something to look forward to at the end of a long day at school.

There were days we all dreaded boarding the bus home though. The days when Jani was not on duty. When he alternated with the other embassy driver, Matthi.

A stooped, greasy, dark haired man, Matthi was never to be seen without a cigarette or be seen with a smile. His permanent scowl kept us quiet and subdued on the hot journeys home. There was no happy chatter, no laughter and certainly no ice-cream on the tedious commute. If any of the children dared to speak to him as he drove he would shout at us to be quiet. (Zavři hubu!) We knew he was not to be disturbed. When it came to dropping us all off one-by-one, he would glare at us as we left the minibus. I once looked over my shoulder as I approached our garden gate and his crow like eyes caught mine and something akin to a smirk crossed his face, before he let out the clutch and the bus lurched noisily away over the cobbles. After that, I never looked back.

And that was how the bus ride home always was. You never knew who you would get each day, which driver would make a bad day worse, or a good day better.

One week, without warning, Jani didn’t drive at all, and Matthi drove every day. It was the only time I dared speak to him, to meekly enquire as to Jani’s whereabouts. The other children were horrified when I raised my voice and awaited the inevitable put down. Instead we were all surprised when Matthi, for the first time ever, spoke back to us. “Jani no do bus anymore. Jani in car crash. Very bad. Legs broken. His Mercedes very smashed up.”

All of us were shocked. Jani, our Jani, was hurt. We had lost our favourite bus driver. We had lost our friend. There would be no more laughter and no more-ice cream. As it began to sink in, I caught Matthi’s eye in the mirror. A chill went through me as I realised he was smiling. It dawned on me that Matthi was happy. Happy that Jani was hurt. Happy that he would no longer be driving us home from school. He took a long drag of his cigarette and winked at me. I turned and looked out of the window at the city streets. The following year we left Prague and returned to England and western normality. I never did see Jani again.

Time gets twisted. Memory becomes mangled. But my father has the same recall. The two drivers, both embassy employees. With one crucial difference. He loved Matthi. And he hated Jani.

We were sharing a beer and collective memories when this came up. My father is retired but his mind is still sharp so this difference of opinion came as a surprise. I reminded him of the kind, gentle nature of Jani. The generosity he showed myself and the other embassy offspring. How he listened to our childish talk and always showed interest in our lives outside the bus. Then I described the cold, unapproachable Matthi.

My father listened patiently, nodding in all the right places, and waited for me to sum up. Then he said to me, “son, you’ve got it all wrong.”

Matthi was in his forties and had worked at the embassy for many years, earning a pittance by Western standards to support his family. Driving the school mini bus was just one of many mundane embassy duties Matthi performed. He spoke very little English and therefore could not engage any of the children in conversations aboard the mini bus. His task was to get us home safely, which he never failed to do. He was no ogre, he was just a hard working man, trying his best to do his job and look after his family.

I was right about one thing though. Matthi, like my father, and as it turns out, like most of the embassy staff, really did hate Jani.

Matthi always had our best interests at heart, getting us home quickly and then watching us to make sure we all made it to our garden gates and front doors. Whereas Jani had other interests. He wanted to keep us happy. To entertain us. But only enough so that we would let our guard down.

Matthi, on his wage, could barely afford a basic Škoda to get around in. Yet Jani, who performed the same tasks, was badly injured in a Mercedes, an expensive Western car, out of the reach of most Czech people.

Matthi always watched over us, whereas Jani never did. Because his job was to listen.

In the early eighties, the KGB, otherwise known as Russia’s secret police, was the world’s most effective information gathering organisation. Jani was a KGB officer, assigned to the British Embassy. It was a widely known secret amongst the embassy staff. They all knew who he was, and what he was. He was never given important tasks, but he was Russia’s eyes and ears within our diplomatically protected, embassy walls. His only job outside of the walls was the school run.

And it was here, that he became everyones friend. He would listen patiently to us all as we spoke about our days at school, and who our parents were meeting that evening, or seeing that weekend. What diplomatic events they were attending and perhaps, when our accommodation would be empty for a few hours so that a KGB team could enter and place their discrete listening devices.

Now I don’t think for one minute, that anyone one of us ever gave away a state secret on that battered old blue Ford Transit. But I always consider the small part that all of us on that bus played during the cold war. And I always remember Jani, and how much I thought of him as a friend. And how alien that seems to me now.

Perhaps most of all though, I miss the taste of Czech ice-cream.